It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a picture book. Many of the picture books we receive are geared for younger children, largely pre-readers through first or second grade. They cover a myriad of topics, yet they also seem to stay within a familiar set of themes. I really wanted something different.I found it in I Have a Dream, Too!
This is not a picture book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech. It is the second title in the Joe Joe in the City series, a set of picture books that juxtapose contemporary challenges with the lives and achievements of African Americans in US history. In this story, the modern-day life of Joseph Rawlings, Jr. is paired with the story of Mary McLeod Bethune.
Joe Joe Rawlings (age 10) lives in the city with his parents and younger brother Brandon. He has been studying hard, and his hard work has paid off. He earned three A’s and a B on his report card! On his way home from school, he stops in the library to share his good news with Mrs. Morgan, the librarian. While they’re talking, Mrs. Morgan gives him a book she’s been holding for him: The Life and Works of Mary McLeod Bethune.
When Joe Joe gets to his house, Tyrone and Kalia were sitting on the stoop. They were not as impressed as Mrs. Morgan with his grades. Joe Joe told them he dreams about going to college. In fact, he was writing a paper called “Why I Want to Go to College” for the assignment due on Friday. Tyrone and Kalia laughed.
“College! Come on, man. Nobody in this neighborhood goes to college. Who around here do you see going to college?” Kalia just shook her head.
Joe Joe was disappointed, but not deterred. He walked inside, recovered his happiness, and shared his news with his family. Then he went upstairs to start reading about Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod was the daughter of freed slaves. Even though the McLeod’s owned a bible, no one could read it. They didn’t know how. After a little girl yelled at her about touching a book, Mary McLeod decided that someday she would learn to read! This was her dream … and when she was ten, her dream came true. Her parents sent her to a school for African American children.
The next day, Joe Joe stopped by Mr. Booth’s store. He asked if there was a way he could help Mr. Booth after school and earn some money … he needed to start saving for college. Mr. Booth agreed to let Joe Joe help him in the stockroom one afternoon a week. When Tyrone and Kalia saw him, they started calling him “college boy” and teasing him about his job.
“Anyway,” Tyrone added, “if you really want to make some money, you could make more running for Cecil than you’ll ever make at Old Man Booth’s Store. Think about that.“
This time, Joe Joe didn’t recover as quickly. They made him mad, and he lost interest in writing his paper. He saw his library book and picked it up to continue reading.
Mary McLeod finished her education and decided she wanted to be a missionary to Africa. She was accepted in a two-year college in Chicago that would prepare her to reach her dream. But when she graduated, the mission group told her there were no openings for an African American missionary in Africa.
Joe Joe stopped reading, convinced that dreams don’t come true. Friday came and went, and Joe Joe never wrote his paper. His teacher called home, and Joe Joe’s mom talked about the paper, his dream, and the story of how Mary McLeod Bethune’s dreams did come true.
In 1904, With five students and only $1.50, Mary McLeod Bethune started her own school. Within three years, there were 250 students in what became Bethune-Cookman College. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named her to a post in the National Youth Administration in Washington, DC. This was the highest federal position held by an African American woman. She visited the White House many times and met a number of presidents.
As you might expect, Joe Joe finished his assignment over the weekend! He shared it with his class and Kalia, who had previously laughed at him, decided that maybe she wants to go to college, too.
As I was reading, I kept envisioning a teacher or counselor sharing it with a class. There is a lot to explore: there are the perennial issues that come with growing up (personal and family responsibilities, integrity, etc.), there are external pressures (implied as drug dealing in this story), and then there is the parallel to history. The fictional story and factual biography are woven together seamlessly.
By connecting Joe Joe to Mrs. Morgan and the library, Elster created a way of introducing the historical figures and also reinforcing the importance of reading. In the “character” of Mary McLeod Bethune, she offered an historical context from a time when learning to read wasn’t an option for people of color.
Joe Joe is a very realistic, likeable character. Kids will recognize the peer pressure and difficulty of being “different” (or in this case having different goals). Hopefully they will also see Joe Joe as a reader. When Joe Joe sits down to read, the audience reads with him. The passage is set apart, in italics, and the facing page is a photograph relevant to the biography.
Maybe it’s a “girl thing,” but I like the idea that the historical figure is a woman. Given the title and the young boy on the cover, I expected the story to have an all-male cast. I’m glad it didn’t. I did not know a lot about Mary McLeod Bethune, so for me, it was educational, as well.
This is a picture book could be a stand-out for older readers, too. Although the target audience is 6 to 10, it has potential with a middle-school crowd. It offers at-risk readers the more complex stories they want at the lower reading level they need.
The premise of the Joe Joe in the City series is exceptional. It offers stories with universal, contemporary issues. By overlaying modern dilemmas with history, kids have the opportunity to see that while some things have changed, some things – like perseverence – are timeless. In Joe Joe Rawlings, boys will find a friend and supporter.
NOTE: There is no book called The Life and Works of Mary McLeod Bethune, but the information is factual. The author lists two biographies as her sources.
No other reviews found.
I Have a Dream, Too! is our May contribution to the Diversity Rocks! Book Challenge. Be sure to stop by Diversity Rocks! to see the collection of May reviews. It’s never too late to join the Challenge. Ali has some great giveaways this month.